Preparing for Special Needs Shelters with Dementia

The State of Florida has truly had its eyes opened lately. Proper training for the handling of those with dementia during a disaster is essential. Hurricanes Irma & Michael made sure of that. I have been extremely grateful to take on the task of educating and training Florida’s Heath Department employees on dementia care and awareness.

If you are a caregiver for loved ones living with dementia during a natural disaster, you will most likely find yourself facing two difficult situations; the oncoming storm outdoors and the tempest inside your patient’s mind resulting from the mass confusion. If this should happen to you, chances are you will not have time to think so plan ahead.

If you find yourself in such a situation, you cannot rely on other people for help, as they will most likely be caught up in making their own preparations.

In the event of an impending hurricane or thunderstorm, these loved ones will most likely be frightened and possibly uncooperative. Days full of newscasts with constant warnings of wind and the impending storm surge will have his or her anxiety levels elevated, not to mention the caregiver’s nerves. If the decision to evacuate has to be made, this can prove to be exceedingly difficult for those who are memory impaired. Any change in routine—never mind a change in surroundings—will be very disturbing.

As I said earlier, it’s best to plan ahead. Research where it is you may need to go. If you have a nearby friend or relative who is willing to open their home to you, try to get there early enough so that the dementia patient can be settled into their new environment gradually. If the possibility should arise, be sure to prepare a checklist for a substitute caregiver listing patients’ daily habits and anything that may help to soothe them.

Always use redirection as a tool to keep them calm. Here are some items I highly recommend to pack as you plan to evacuate.
●MP3 player with headphones, downloaded with their favorite song list.
●Photo album for reminiscing. This takes his or her mind back to a comfortable and familiar time in life.
●Crafts, knitting or anything they love. Playing cards is always good. This is something to keep their hands busy.
●Snacks, redirection through taste is always a great tool.
●Familiar items, maybe their own blanket.
(Please keep in mind you will be limited on how much stuff you can bring. Make it count.)

Consider pets as well. My dad was very fond of our cat and sometimes seemed to care more for the cat than himself during his time of battling Alzheimer’s Disease. Assure your charge that their pets welfare will be well looked after.

Do your best to maintain a calm demeanor. Be reassuring in your manner and have calm conversations with them as often as possible. Frequently remind them that you’re there to assist with their needs, whatever they may be. Be patient for it will probably be necessary to repeat yourself often throughout this ordeal. It’s essential that you don’t get yourself into a frenzy. The calmer you appear, the less unnerved they will become.

Speaking of preparing ahead of time, Your local Chamber of Commerce and County Health Department will have all the information needed in the event it becomes necessary to seek out a special need shelter. In 2015, Florida put a law into place that those diagnosed with dementia are able to seek special need shelters in every county that is designated for people with disabilities. This would be a much better choice. Do your research ahead of time and find one that would best suit your needs. Please make sure you’re “pre-registered”. You can find the form online by Googling (your county + special needs shelters).

Keep in mind, people dealing with dementia do not perform well in noisy, crowded places. In fact, this may be the worst situation for them to endure. This is why I am such a big fan of music therapy. A device with head phones is ideal for this environment. As I stated earlier, a friend or relative’s house will be a more composed environment, if possible.

Even stable individuals that are waiting out the storm in a public shelter are going to be nervous wrecks, worrying if their houses will still be standing when they return home. The anxiety in that building is going to hit the ceiling and the afflicted loved ones are going to sense this.

Sadly, you also need to have a plan in place as there’s always a strong chance you may not be able to go home for a while due to destruction or loss of power.

Today is the perfect day to start your storm preparedness and evacuation plan. Don’t procrastinate!

Gary Joseph LeBlanc, CDCS
Director of Dementia Education
Dementia Spotlight Foundation

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